Naming day for Australian radio telescope

By Natalie Muller 10 June 2011
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Wajarri elders name the antennas of one of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes.

THE FIRST SIX ANTENNAS of the landmark Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), a radio telescope being developed by the CSIRO, have been officially named by the Wajarri people of mid-west Western Australia.

Representatives from seven Aboriginal families presented the chosen names on plaques at a special ceremony held on 2 June at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, about 315km north-east of Geraldton.

CSIRO’s ASKAP director Antony Schinkel says the community was initially uncertain about having the $250 million construction on their land, until they were shown what it could do.

“Telescopes are very unusual constructions and these facilities are often built in remote sites with strong indigenous heritage,” he says. “All cultures have some tradition with astronomy, even if it is quite different to the western version. But I think they saw a common thread, and that with this we are trying to understand the evolution of the night sky.”

The six Wajarri names are: Bilyarli (which means galah and is also the name of past Wajarri elder Frank Ryan); Bundarra (stars); Wilara (the Moon); Jirdilungu (the Milky Way); Balayi (a lookout, as this antenna looks westward towards the others); and Diggidumble (the name of a nearby table-top hill).

“These names will be a permanent reminder that this is the land of the Wajarri people,” says Gavin Egan, chair of Wajarri Yamatji Native Title Group.

ASKAP is the most powerful radio telescope

ASKAP is a next-generation radio telescope that will be, by a factor of 10, more powerful than any other radio astronomy telescope in the world. According to Antony, it will play a key role in deepening our understanding of the birth and evolution of the universe.

By 2013, 36 antennas will make up ASKAP, and the CSIRO plans to name all of them with Wajarri names. Roads, power and data-distribution centres and foundation pads for the other antennas will also become part of the telescope complex, and will also receive Wajarri names.

“Naming a number of the critical aspects of the telescope after traditional Wajarri Yamatji words and some key individuals, is very significant,” Antony says. “I think it represents quite a step in terms of demonstrating to them our genuine respect for their ownership of the land.”

One of the roads in the complex will be called Ngurlubarndi, after Fred Simpson, a past Wajarri elder and father of Wajarri elder Ike Simpson.

Wajarri: indigenous land ownership

The telescope’s antennas are being built on of native title Wajarri land. The deal was negotiated in 2009, and incorporates bringing new opportunities to the community and local businesses. Over the next five years, Wajarri communities will receive more than $10 million in funding, as well as a satellite link to provide internet connectivity.

The project will also fund up to 70 indigenous cadetships with CSIRO, as well as mentoring and science-based education programs for Aboriginal teenagers at the local high school.